media release

Outspoken advocate for those who use drugs awarded SFU’s Sterling Prize for Controversy

August 22, 2023

As B.C.’s toxic drug crisis continues, so does the debate on how to reduce harm and save lives. For Nicole Luongo, a systems change coordinator with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition (CDPC), that has meant supporting progressive drug policy approaches, despite criticism, while advocating for those stigmatized and marginalized for using drugs. For her ongoing work, Luongo is being recognized with the 2023 Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy.

Luongo, who has a background in medical sociology and previously taught at colleges in Alberta and the Lower Mainland, has spent a decade working in solidarity with those most impacted by the intersections of drug prohibition, housing-deprivation, and disability (in)justice, including as a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).

Her own personal experience with the mental health system, substance use, and homelessness informs her progressive perspective to drug policy development. Her 2022 memoir, titled The Becoming, details her autobiographical reflections and academic analysis of drug use and the mental health system. 

In her role with the CDPC, which has collaborations with researchers in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, Luongo advances education and advocacy supporting a legislative framework that would make all psychoactive drugs legal, safe, and government-regulated. 

She also advocates for abolishing involuntary institutionalization, a practice that permits healthcare providers to detain and admit people to hospital against their wishes, a practice she says may be expanding to include people who use illegal drugs.

Luongo explains that there are several misconceptions surrounding those who use drugs. “Not all people who use drugs are addicted to them and warrant medical intervention,” she says. 

Another misconception is that people who experience addiction need to be totally abstinent in order to recover. “Abstinence is one choice among many,” Luongo says. “The data bears out that many people successfully reduce or regain control of their drug use when their environment changes.”

Luongo asserts that investing in robust poverty reduction initiatives, affordable housing, equitable access to employment, education, mental health resources, and social supports will make the most impact in the efforts to prevent drug addiction. 

“We as a society need to recognize that people are different and just because someone is engaging in deviant behaviour or behaviour that looks anomalous, it’s not inherently indicative of illness,” she explains. “But we’ve been trained to bifurcate people into healthy and sick categories and to respond accordingly. What I’d love to see is a world that is built to be accommodating to a diversity of experiences.”

Luongo also co-facilitates a provincial working group that consists of a broad network of advocates and advocacy organizations. “We are in the process of finalizing a large policy platform that will be released in the fall and hopefully be used as an entry point into greater coalition building across sectors,” she says.

“Looking down the road we hope to introduce one or more pilot projects that are rooted in community-based and community-operated safe supply models.”

Through her advocacy work, Luongo acknowledges that change is slow and necessitates communities working together. This recognition is reflected in her decision to include community guest speakers in her upcoming public lecture. 

The event will take place on Tuesday, October 17th, at 5:30 p.m. at the Asia Pacific Hall, Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue on 580 W Hastings Street.

Register for the 2023 Sterling Prize Ceremony and Lecture with Nicole Luongo here. 

The in-person event will include American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation. Live captioning will be available on mobile or for those attending virtually. A transcript and recording will be made available following the event. 

For Luongo, it is important to include and acknowledge community as she receives The Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy. “I would like the audience members to reflect on who they expect to see in certain spaces,” says Luongo. “I think there is some benefit to bringing these issues, and the people who are the faces of them, into spaces that have typically excluded them.”


NICOLE LUONGO, systems change coordinator, Canadian Drug Policy Coalition


MELISSA SHAW, SFU Communications & Marketing 
236.880.3297 | 

Simon Fraser University 
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